Either you act quick before too much damage is done, or you have patience and try all avenues for peaceful dialogue.
I have tried to make sense of the long delayed international approving of PKO deployment to the Mali crisis as a sign of maturity in international UN and diplomatic circles; without knowing details I have interpreted the situation as peace negotiations must have been at least moderately successful. But now with the French bombing northern Mali I can only conclude that it is either too late, or too soon.
Although the sudden attacks must have been planned well ahead, something that speaks well with the rapid deployment of West African peacekeepers (a mission that would until a few days ago not happen before well into the autumn this year), the question is now what will happen. France will probably continue bombing rebel bases in the north, but will not employ soldiers in the region, except for a few in the Malian capital Bamako. European countries have promised to train both Malian forces and West African peacekeepers, but this will hardly affect the outcome of the crisis. We may get some indications what will come in the future by looking at past West African PKOs and if we look at the chiefly Nigerian missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 90s it is not a pretty picture. Although ECOMOG missions to the two countries limited the intensity of the conflicts they clearly also prolonged them. In both countries the peacekeepers did not only fail to be neutral but very soon after their arrival they became part of the war economy, trading in natural resources, loot and arms. A West African mission in Mali will also have Nigerian forces as its backbone (and I am not saying that Nigerian forces are the only ones with problems or even those with most). One should be fair to say that the Nigerian army has developed positively over the past ten years or so, but be equally realistic: a West African PKO will become part of the conflict and individual forces will try to benefit economically from their presence – where the most troubling perspective would be involvement in the trans-Saharan drugs trade. Ultimately, however, if they will be successful or not depends on their ability to navigate a dry, sandy environment something they are not familiar with.
In the mean time we struggle to make heads and tails of the different movements in the area. MNLA (The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) must have been surprised when they with little resistance captured half of the Malian territory. Tuareg groups have fought for an independent Azawad on and off since independence, but has seemed to be more interested of being included into the Malian state and other peace dividends than actually creating an independent Azawad (see Bøås 2012), indeed so it also appears to be this time. Ansar Dine on the other hand came up with a more Islamist political agenda and after MNLA in confusion and unpreparedness for their newfound powers started to pillage towns and villages and rape civilians, many in the local population seemed to prefer Ansar Dine as they protected them better – it was security rather than popular interest in their religious-political agenda. Both these movements have been willing to retract from their independence agendas and have participated in peace talks with the government in Bamako. But while these problems appear bridgeable there are other more severe problems. First two other movements with roots outside Mali have won territory in Mali; Al-Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). With even more radical religious agendas they stand at odds with socio-political realities in Northern Mali, clearly also with Bamako and increase western fear of global radical Islam – fueling talks of the “Sahel winds” in political offices in Europe and beyond. From a northern perspective these two movements are the most acute problems for any peace plan. Secondly there is a question of the role of the pro-government militia Ganda Koy. Formed during the 1990s they carried out atrocious raids against civilians in the north well into the 2000s simultaneously as western governments hailed Mali as a well-functioning democracy (see previous blog post). Ganda Koy’s non-constitutional activities in the North clearly fed into state resentment especially amongst a Tuareg population. Although the activities of Ganda Koy elements today are less talked of due to the general messiness of the situation, they certainly play some role. Thirdly is the fragmented and fragile power situation in Bamako. The coup early last year did not just expose rifts amongst the political elite, but also the army. The split between the red and green barrettes is mostly talked about, but there are likely to be other groups pushing for influence as well. A sensitive area is the international drugs route with cocaine landing on the coastal states of West Africa and partly transferring through Mali en route to Europe. It is believed that both individuals in the Malian army and within rebel groups have a share in this lucrative trade. Within army and political elite there has since the coup been constant negotiations leading to new power constellations without a successful resolution. It is indeed mere speculation but maybe an emerging shift in power, first opened up for the Ansar Dine led attack into the south and maybe also in fear of losing the fragile power they had in Bamako finally lead France to take action showing that the old colony still lies well within France’s sphere of interest.
Now with the damage done France will have to think thoroughly over the consequences of attacking north Mali. First and most obviously France has increased her attractiveness for new terrorist attacks. Secondly France has now taken on the assignment to aid Mali into renewed peace and stability – this is a huge responsibility. And finally France must now counteract the obvious rejuvenation of radicalization that always follows military attacks by outside forces and more especially so in the religiously over-politicized world order of our times.
Bøås, M. (2012), ‘Castles in the sand: informal networks and power brokers in the northern Mali periphery’, in Mats Utas (ed.) African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks, London: Zed Books, pp. 119-134